The restaurant offering free pedicures and manicures with your hot pot

Haidilao is China’s most popular hot pot chain, but there’s more than just food on its menu

A diner gets a manicure while waiting for a table at a Haidilao restaurant, China’s most popular hot pot chain, in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times

A diner gets a manicure while waiting for a table at a Haidilao restaurant, China’s most popular hot pot chain, in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times

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Sometimes, Shang Feifei goes to a restaurant just for the manicures.

On a recent Wednesday night, the 40-year-old sat patiently at a downtown Beijing branch of Haidilao, a restaurant chain that defies China’s well-earned reputation for lousy customer service. A Haidilao employee buffed and painted her nails, free. The aroma from bubbling broth-filled pots lingered in the air.

A chef at a Haidilao: the restaurant chin has bucked China’s trend for poor customer service by going all out to greet, serve and entertain. Photograph; Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
A chef at a Haidilao: the restaurant chin has bucked China’s trend for poor customer service by going all out to greet, serve and entertain.

Shang was not planning to stay to eat after she got her pink, glittery nails done. For her, the food was secondary to the experience.

“I find Haidilao’s special services so entertaining,” said Shang, who comes to Haidilao every week to get her manicures. “Like the free pedicures, the photo-printing machine, Chinese checkers and origami.”

Hot pot, in which diners cook their own meat and vegetables in a boiling broth, is a favourite meal in China. And Haidilao is China’s most popular hot pot chain, mostly because of how employees go all out to greet, serve and entertain.

A diner selects condiments at a Haidilao restaurant. Photograph; Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
A diner selects condiments at a Haidilao restaurant.

Haidilao hopes people outside China will be as captivated. It recently raised nearly €900 million in an initial public offering in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese city where foreign investors are free to buy up shares. It wants to use the money to expand.

But outside China, it could be a harder sell.

“It was disgusting that people were waiting and having their nails clipped,” Joel Silverstein, chief executive of the East West Hospitality Group, a restaurant consultancy based in Hong Kong, said of a Haidilao outlet he visited in mainland China.“But the thing I’ve learned about China is, Chinese people love over-the-top service as long as they don’t have to pay for it.”

Shoe-shining service

In a country where service without a smile is still the norm in many places, Haidilao earns its loyalty. Customers are offered free shoe-shining services and board games while they wait. Diners can watch a traditional Sichuan opera show. Eating with toddlers? A “playground sister” will keep them entertained.

A children’s play area at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
A children’s play area at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing.

Patrons in China sometimes line up for hours to get into one of Haidilao’s nearly 300 domestic restaurants. “The staff here gives you the feeling that you are a family member,” said Liu Lu, 42, a stay-at-home mother who said that the chain’s employees would arrange a crib for her baby so she could indulge in the hot pot without a care.

Hot pot – known in China as huo guo, or fire pot – was originally consumed to ward off the cold of winter. It is now a year-round cuisine. Chinese diners love the participatory nature of the cooking process: people gather around a pot of boiling broth, dunk their meats in it, fish them out and dip them into sauces. The time spent cooking gives people time to socialise.

Haidilao’s name originates from a Sichuanese mah-jongg term that connotes winning. While the chain offers a wide variety of broths, it is known mainly for its Sichuan-style spicy hot pot.

Diners at a Haidilao restaurant: hot pot, in which diners cook their own meat and vegetables in a boiling broth, is a favourite meal in China. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
Diners at a Haidilao restaurant: hot pot, in which diners cook their own meat and vegetables in a boiling broth, is a favourite meal in China.

Zhang Yong, a former tractor factory worker, founded Haidilao originally with just four tables in his hometown, Jianyang, a city in the Sichuan province in China’s southwest. “I didn’t know how to make soup or cook any ingredients,” Zhang told Huang Tieying, a Peking University professor who wrote a 2011 book called, You Can’t Copy Haidilao. “In order to satisfy people, I gave away more than I sold,” he said. “As a result, customers were still willing to come back, even though my food wasn’t that good.”

Food scandals

Even a string of food safety scandals has not dented confidence in the brand. Last year, a viral video taken in two Beijing outlets by an undercover Chinese journalist showed rat-infested kitchens, dishwashers covered with grease and staff members cleaning sewers with a soup ladle. In June, the Chinese news media reported that a customer in one of the previous offending outlets found a fly in the dipping sesame sauce. In both instances, Haidilao apologised and promised to overhaul food safety in all its restaurants.

Last week a woman claimed to have fished out a sanitary napkin while dining at a Haidilao outlet in Shenzhen. She demanded one million yuan (€125,000) as compensation, the restaurant manager said. Unhappy with the restaurant’s explanation that the paper-thin object she found was probably wrapping from the meat, she returned the next day and trashed the furniture.

A traditional Chinese mask show at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
A traditional Chinese mask show at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing.

The hotpot chain eventually gave her an 800 yuan (€100) refund, but matters unfurled when the police received a report that the woman had made a similar complaint at another hotpot restaurant she patronised the next day.

Now, customers can watch a livestream video of the kitchen from a flat-screen television hung on the wall or through tablets on their tables. They are also welcome to personally observe the food being prepared.

“The food is very clean; other hot pot restaurants have food that isn’t that fresh,” said Liu Yali, a teacher who eats at the chain every two to three days. “Whenever my friends want to gather, we always choose Haidilao.”

An employee doing the trademark ‘noodle dance’ at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrié/ The New York Times
An employee doing the trademark ‘noodle dance’ at a Haidilao restaurant in Beijing.

The question now for the outward-looking Haidilao is whether hot pot – and the chain’s over-the-top customer service – can draw foreigners the same way. “If they want to be popular overseas, they’ll have to adjust their services and menu,” said Darcy Zhang, a Shanghai-based food blogger who is a fan of Haidilao. “In other countries, some of their services might feel too exaggerated.

“For example, a customer will go and wash their hands and the staff will be waiting outside with tissue paper and a huge smile,” she added. “Perhaps foreigners might find that quite creepy.” – New York Times News Service

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